Building Great Characters

A great story is more than a series of events glued together. It’s about characters discovering their true selves and changing for the better (or for the worse). The quality of your hero and their change depends not only on how you build them but on how each and every character affects your hero’s character arc.

I used to write characters by giving them a name and inserting as many character traits as I could until they became interesting. The results, however, were a collection of quirks attached to a name.

But character building is not about quirks. It’s about carefully crafting a web of character step by step until they’re greater than the sum of their parts.

Read on to understand character building methods from experts such as John Truby (screenwriter), Robert McKee (screenwriter), and David Edgar (playwright). These tried and true methods will then be presented in a logical order to transform your literary creations from one-dimensional roles to three-dimensional, fleshed out and necessary characters to your story.

The first step of character creation is taken from John Truby’s book: The Anatomy of a Story. There, he suggests you start defining characters by their role.

1. Roles

The role is the function a character plays in the story. These roles are Hero, Opponent, Ally, Fake-Ally, Fake-Opponent, and Subplot Character. Each of these roles exists in service of your main character and their character arc.

The Hero is the character that drives the action in a story by pursuing a goal; however, this character has certain flaws that keep them from achieving their goal.

The Opponents are the characters that want to keep the hero from reaching their goal. The Main Opponent is the character who can best attack your hero's flaws.

The Ally is a character that wants to help the hero reach their goal.

The Fake-Ally is a character who appears to be an ally but is, in fact, an opponent. This kind of character provides traitorous twists to the story, like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.

The Fake-Opponent is a character that appears to be an opponent but is actually an ally. The ‘Pigeon Lady’ from Home Alone 2 is a perfect example of a fake opponent, as is Professor Snape in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone because they are both considered opponents by our hero, but they're revealed as allies by the end of the story.

Writing characters who switch from allies to opponents and from opponents to allies is a great way to have twists and turns in your story.

Finally, the Subplot Character exists as a contrast to the Hero by having them face the same troubles as the hero but take a different approach. Subplot characters exist to define your character and help clarify the moral argument of your story. John Trudy presents Shakespeare’s Laertes as the perfect example of a subplot character because, like Hamlet, he deals with the problem of avenging his father. However, while Hamlet is careful and thoughtful, Laertes is reckless and passionate. Laertes helps clarify the argument of the story because if his character didn’t exist, the audience could assume that Hamlet should’ve killed Claudius the first chance he got in order to prevent all the tragedies. By having another character act recklessly and also die tragically, the audience discards that idea.

The second step for creating your character is what Robert McKee defines as ‘Characterization’ and ‘True Character’ in his book, Story. Fleshing out these two (sometimes) opposing aspects of your character is the best way to get the essence of who your character really is.

2. Characterization:

Robert Mckee describes characterization as all the observable traits your character possesses. These include their physical appearance, age, voice, gestures, personality, etc. Note that this is NOT the moment to insert character traits into your character. There will be time for that later. The reason you’re coming up with your character’s observable aspects is to have an image in your head of who they are and how they appear to be unique.

3. True Character: